“Okay, everyone settle down!”
The brisk, loud double-clap Makoto followed the words with was probably more effective than his voice, but even that wasn’t entirely successful. There was a brief dip in the volume level, but everywhere he looked kids continued to whisper together, to poke each other, to giggle and squirm. Honestly, this was his class on good behavior, and was probably the calmest he was ever going to get them.
And, well, it was hard to blame them for being so excited when he felt the same way himself.
“Let’s all remember the rules one more time, okay?” Out of habit, Makoto settled into a squat in front of the loose semicircle of children; he always felt better when he could look them in the eyes and be closer to their level. It was easier when they were all in the pool, but out here on the deck he didn’t want to loom more than necessary.
“‘Kay!” chorused most of the class obediently, with a range of reactions to the word ‘rules’ that ran all the way from thrilled enthusiasm to thinly veiled sulking.
“Try to raise your hand if you want to ask someone a question,” Makoto held up one of his hands in demonstration. A few of the kids copied him, which no matter how many times it happened, he found flattering and extremely adorable. “Try to be quiet and polite when someone else is talking.” A finger pressed to his lips. “And we’re going to try to only ask questions about swimming today, okay?”
It had been Makoto’s own idea to start phrasing most of his rules and directions (the ones that weren’t related to safety, anyway), using the word ‘try,’because realistically he’d learned that that was all he could ask a class of five and six year olds to do.
There was another, more scattered and dissonant chorus of “‘Kay!” and “Yes, Mako-sensei,” and Makoto smiled in spite of himself. There were very few things in his life that were simultaneously as exhausting and rewarding as the kids he taught. But then, swimming had always been like that for him too, so it was fitting in a way.
Besides, when the rewarding parts came, they were so, so fun.
“Okay then.” Makoto turned his torso, still staying crouched on the cool concrete in front of the kids, to call out over his shoulder, toward one of the hallways branching off the natatorium where he’d told today’s ‘special guests’ to wait for his signal. “Guys, I think we’re ready for you!”
When the two of them emerged and came toward their little group, Makoto tried to see them through his class’s eyes; not as two of his oldest friends but as world-class swimmers, Olympians...celebrities. He knew that at their age he would have been awed beyond belief to meet someone who stood on that vast a stage.
Rin was first; Makoto could see he was trying to match his pace to Haru, but he had an extra little length and swagger to his stride that was putting him subtly in the lead. He was clearly fully aware of all the little eyes on him, and was making the most of it. To be fair, Makoto couldn’t remember a time when Rin hadn’t cut an impressive figure, but now with two gold medals (one record-breaking) and countless smaller championship titles to his name he wore it more comfortably--not like someone with something to prove, but like someone who already had.
In contrast, to the untrained eye Haru might almost have slipped into Rin’s shadow. He didn’t carry himself like a celebrity or a gold medalist (even though he and Rin were basically tied in that respect); he just carried himself like Haru, like he always had. But because he was Haru, there was that calm, self-possessed grace to the way he moved, even on land, that made people who were paying attention take a second look. The knowledge that Haru had remained so himself, relatively untouched by his fame was one of the most anchoring feelings Makoto had ever experienced, and it buoyed his heart every time he was reminded of it.
The class’s murmurs swelled as the two of them joined Makoto in front of them, kids craning their necks or jostling their classmates excitedly, eyes rounding at the sight of two people they’d probably only ever seen on their TV screens. Makoto heard one awed whisper of, “They’re real”, as if Rin and Haru were mythical beasts he’d brought in for show-and-tell, and he couldn’t help smiling up at them both from his crouch. Rin was maintaining his confident, sharp-toothed grin, but Makoto could see right through it to his barely-concealed delight at the reception when their eyes met. Haru looked curious but unbothered by the attention, giving the pool a long moment of consideration before he caught Makoto’s eye and returned his smile with a small, quiet one of his own.
“All right,” Makoto clapped for quiet again, more as a formality than out of expectation that he could actually settle his thrilled kids at this point. “Let’s do introductions.” Although they were hardly needed; aside from seeing Rin and Haru on TV, he’d told so many stories about them in class that he was pretty sure most of the children could tell them apart on sight. “These are my friends, Rin-san--” Rin’s smile broadened and he gave the kids a theatrical bow, “--and Haru-san.” Haru simply dipped his head in acknowledgment, his eyes skimming thoughtfully over the group as if taking in the view of bright-eyed faces that Makoto saw every day. The three of them had decided earlier together that they didn’t need the formality of last names with the kids, and Haru’s only stipulation was that Makoto ‘drop the -chan’ during his introduction. “Let’s give them a nice greeting.”
“Good morning RinsanandHarusan!” came the jumbled chorus. There were already several raised hands in the air, and Makoto prepared himself for the inevitable refereeing that was coming. Irrepressible Kousuke in particular was already bouncing as much as a kid could in a seated position, waving his hand like he might explode if he didn’t get to ask his question.
Makoto decided that with the minimum formalities observed, it was probably better for everyone not to keep the kids in suspense. “Okay, okay, we can start with a few questions,” he said, sliding from his crouch into a cross-legged position in front of the class so his legs didn’t fall asleep. To his surprise and immense fondness, Rin and Haru immediately followed suit, settling on either side of him and giving the whole thing an air that was more storytime huddle than classroom lecture.
“Okay, Kou-chan, go ahead,” Makoto nodded at Kousuke, since he was pretty his question was going to get asked anyway if he didn’t call on him first.
“Rin-san, are your teeth real?” Kousuke blurted, eyes sparkling. There were gasps and squeaks of agreement from all around.
Makoto fought the urge to put a hand over his face. “Kou-chan, remember the rule about swimming questions? That’s kind of personal.”
But Rin, who had gotten this question from countless interviewers, sports anchors, YouTube comments and just about everywhere else and now seemed to take it in stride, just laughed and snapped his teeth theatrically together. The kids ‘oooh’-ed. “Yeah, they’re real. I’m not biting anything to prove it though.” That produced some giggles and disappointed noises.
Makoto called on Ruka-chan next, since she’d been waiting patiently with her hand up, the model of a good question-asker. “How are you so fast?” she asked bluntly, prompting nods of agreement all around.
“Practice,” said Haru, and Rin nodded sagely. “I didn’t start out being this fast, and Rin didn’t either. We swam every day, even when we were little like you, and we got stronger that way.”
“There’s no secret to it, promise,” Rin added, grinning at the mutters of disbelief this created. “Sorry guys, you just gotta work hard. But that means any of you could be like us, if you want to.”
“That’s what Mako-sensei says too,” Ruka informed him.
“Mako-sensei is very smart, and you should all listen when he tells you stuff like that. He knows what he’s talking about.” Rin bumped Makoto affectionately with his shoulder, and Makoto ducked his head shyly when he saw Haru was nodding seriously on his other side too.
Kousuke raised his hand again, but didn’t bother waiting to be called on this time before he yelled, “My mom has a magazine with you on it!”
Rin smothered a laugh behind a cough into the crook of his elbow. He exchanged a meaningful look with Haru, and Makoto knew they were probably silently trying to decide which of their ‘fated rivals’ covers Kousuke was referring to: the special Olympics edition Sports Illustrated one or the one for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, which had a decidedly different aesthetic.
Kousuke’s question only encouraged a flood of others, and the ‘raise your hand’ rule quickly fell by the wayside, as kids veered off into excited shouts of where they’d watched the Tokyo Summer Olympics and who had a bigger TV and what other celebrities were on the covers of their parents’ magazines. Makoto sighed, the sound drowned under the clamor.
“Is it always like this?” Rin asked under his breath, smiling sidelong at him with his eyebrows raised. “Kids are great, but I’m glad you and your infinite patience ended up with this job, Makoto. Feels like this is when you need a bullhorn or something.”
“No, this is when we need a distraction,” Makoto told him, tilting his head to indicate the pool with a knowing little smile. Haru sat up straighter on his other side, eyes lighting up with a hopeful shine.
“Okay, everyone!” Makoto tried not to raise his voice too often to the kids, even when it wasn’t in anger, but when he needed to he could project. His voice sliced through the middle of the babble just long enough for him to make his next sentence heard, which was all he really needed.
“Who wants to try racing a lap against Haru-san and Rin-san like grown-up swimmers?”
The cheer was unified and immediate, kids scrambling instantly to their feet, and Rin elbowed Makoto lightly in the ribs, grinning. “Look at you, child whisperer,” he murmured under his breath. Makoto shook his head in humble denial, and then moved to start taking control of the mass exodus from deck to pool, which Haru was currently leading.
Ten minutes later, the first two lanes were now full of kids clinging to the sides, waiting for their turn to ‘race,’ and Rin was demonstrating to them the importance of his pre-race ritual of snapping his goggles strap. Makoto stood on the edge and shook his head fondly, certain that by their next class, goggles-snapping would become an indispensable part of everyone’s swimming routines.
Haru stroked over to the side to look up at Makoto thoughtfully. “I guess I have to go easy on them, right?” he said quietly.
“Haru!” Makoto was aghast for a full five seconds before he saw the gleam in Haru’s eyes and let out his breath in a rush. He still hadn’t fully acclimated to the fact that Haru made jokes and was good at it now, and honestly if there was anyone who would insist on going all out against a five-year-old in a swimming competition, it would probably be Haru. “I’m sure they aren’t expecting to win, but be nice--we just moved up to swimming full laps last week.” Haru hummed, as if unimpressed, but his quiet smile was hovering around the edges of his mouth.
“They all love the water already,” Haru said, turning to watch the kids converging eagerly on Rin, who allowed the ones who weren’t as adept at treading water yet to use his arms and shoulders as anchors. Despite his earlier praise of Makoto, he seemed to be fitting right in himself. “It’s because of you, Makoto,” Haru continued, face serious. “Everyone has fun swimming with you.” He said this as if it were undisputed fact, and Makoto could only smile and murmur, “Haru,” because that said all he needed to say.
Just then a small figure sidled its way carefully around the lip of the pool to them, hand over hand, and little Shiho, her black bangs sticking to her forehead under her swim cap, patted Haru’s shoulder shyly with one hand. Makoto was surprised; Shiho was a quick learner and a promising swimmer, but she barely spoke to anyone except him during class. When Haru glanced down, she looked straight up into his eyes with obvious effort and whispered, “I-I want to swim like Haru-san.”
Haru looked slightly startled, and Makoto wanted to laugh--he’d have thought Haru was used to such sentiments by now. Maybe not from such a small and earnest face though.
“Okay,” Haru said finally, sinking down until his chin almost brushed the surface of the water so he could look at Shiho more directly. “But you don’t need to swim exactly like me. You should find your own style, and your own way of feeling the water.”
Shiho looked a little doubtful, her lower lip trembling slightly, and Haru glanced up at Makoto with a bit of a plea in his widened eyes. Even when it had only been Ran and Ren, Haru had always been a little out of his depth when it came to dealing with the ever-shifting moods of children. Makoto took pity on them both and crouched at the edge.
“Shiho-chan? Why don’t you show Haru-ch--Haru-san the breathing practice we did together yesterday? You’re getting really good at it, and breathing is really important for freestyle, remember? I’m sure he wants to see.”
Shiho looked at Haru for confirmation of this, and after a moment of uncertain silence, Haru nodded firmly and said, “Show me. Please,” he added quickly, looking minutely relieved when Shiho seemed to brighten, as much as the quiet little girl ever did, anyway.
It wasn’t the first time Makoto had thought it, but Shiho’s deep blue eyes weren’t so far off from Haru’s own, and seeing them looking at each other like this made him smile. He couldn’t help seeing glimpses of his friends in his class once in a while: this child reminded him of Asahi’s gung-ho energy, that one Ikuya’s quiet drive, another Rin’s hunger for competition. It made him feel close to them even when they were far away, and it reminded him why he loved doing this, and why he loved each kid he got to introduce to swimming and the friends you could make through it.
“Ah, another one seduced by Haru’s freestyle.” Rin, who had apparently overheard from the next lane over, shook his head with mock disappointment, but his voice was fond. He adjusted his goggles over his eyes and called, “I’m gonna start racing--you can tag in later, Haru.” Haru held up his hand briefly in acknowledgment, already trying his best to be attentive as Shiho demonstrated her side-breathing with exaggerated gasps of air.
Makoto stayed on the pool deck so he could keep a broad eye on everything and everyone; besides, it gave him a wonderful view of the races. The kids clung to the side and cheered as Rin carefully paced himself with gentle, even strokes and small kicks to match the rough, splashy swimming of the kids. Still, everyone was making it a full lap without incident, which was enough to make Makoto beam with pride--at the beginning of the class, crossing the entire pool length had seemed like a distant dream to most of the kids. And they seemed to forget all about the concept of winning when Rin offered them a high five when they surfaced, as if that was prize enough.
After a few minutes Haru joined them as promised to take over for a few races, including Shiho’s. A few times he forgot himself and surged ahead a few lengths, but he always caught himself after a couple strokes and slowed again, so that he and the kid reached the other end at close to the same time.
When everyone had had their turn, Makoto called them up and out of the pool. “Your parents are going to be coming to pick you up soon,” he said over the chorus of disappointed cries. “Here, everyone come dry off.”
Haru and Rin helped boost the kids out of the pool, and Makoto handed out towels and made sure no one misplaced their goggles or swim caps. Once he was satisfied that everyone was accounted for, he went over to help his friends out too, just out of habit.
Rin and Haru clasped his offered hands--then exchanged a brief, knowing glance and pulled at the same time.
Makoto toppled into the pool with a yelp and a massive splash, to the backdrop of the delighted shrieks of the class, who hurried closer, towels draping like capes.
“Guys, why,?” Makoto wailed, flipping his hair out of his eyes, unable to stop the laugh that bubbled up anyway.
“Oi, kids!” Rin called up to them. “Before you go home, you wanna see me n’ Haru race Mako-sensei?”
“YES!” shouted all the kids in unison, hopping up and down, and how could Makoto deny them? Not his class, and not his friends--not when it came to demonstrating the simple joy of swimming with the people you loved.
There were days when teaching was frustrating and exhausting, it was true...but they were far, far outweighed by days like this.